jackon square from murielsView of Jackson Square from Muriel's Restaurant

muriel j smith 120NEW ORLEANS – A week aboard America Cruise Line’s paddle wheeler America flies by, but the memories last a lifetime, and the knowledge gained from experts like Bill Wiemuth on the Mississippi River and Bertram Davis, great great grandson of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, on the Civil War is sheer luxury. Still, the cruise line had one final offer for its satiated and contented customers….a brief tour of New Orleans with an unforgettable stop at a cemetery.

row at cemetaryCemeteries in New Orleans are truly cities of the dead, with their vast above ground tombs lined up on either side of the streets, the vaults holding the remains of everyone from Voodoo priestess Marie Leveau to long ago mayors and a pioneer in the sugar industry, Etienne de Bore.

cemetaryClearly the most popular one is St. Louis No. 1 (there are 3) which has been actively accepting the remains of Louisianans since 1789. It’s a complete city block in size, with more than 700 tombs and more than 100,000 bodies in them. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, St. Louis #1 is reportedly haunted…no surprise there….and a popular tourist attraction with guides who spiel out delightfully entertaining stories as they weave among the vaults and point out famous family names.

A block away from the famed French Quarter of this exciting, colorful and in many ways deviant city that firmly believes in letting the good times roll, St. Louis #1 cemetery tour guides will show you the sealed vaults, the smaller sealed vault tucked away in a corner of the big monument and how each can be opened and re-sealed again to prevent flood waters from getting inside. The smaller doors to a corner of the vault serve another purpose. Each vault only holds one or two bodies, so when the next family member dies, the vault is opened, the remains of the last entombed which by now have turned to dust, are packed away carefully in a small container and reinterred in the little vault in the corner of the bigger one. Kind of an early version of cremation, but explains how more than 100,000 bodies can be buried in a sacred place the size of a city block. If two or three family members die before the first deceased’s body has disintegrated, families simply ask a neighbor if they can borrow their vault for a year or so.

Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the US Capitol, also designed a part of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’s Jackson Square and was working on the engineering design for a new waterworks project in New Orleans when he died of yellow fever. His son had died of the same disease three years earlier, and both are entombed in the cemetery. The burial ground is owned by the Catholic diocese and entry is limited to tour groups with storytellers who have been approved by the Bishop. Family members or genealogists can get special permits to enter and walk through the cemetery unattended.

bride in jackson squareJackson Square is exciting regardless of the hour of day or night, with swarms of people in all manner of dress and habits dancing, playing musical instruments, reading tarot cards, telling fortunes, selling voodoo dolls, all kinds of food, drink and strange smelling cigarettes, painting and selling caricatures or portraits, or simply sitting around watching everyone else. With St. Louis Cathedral the focal point of the Square, it isn’t unusual to see a bride and groom and their entire wedding party and guests come out of the Catholic cathedral and dance their way, complete with anything from a violinist to a mariachi band, through the Square to the applause and congratulations of happy strangers. Many of the brides carry white lace umbrellas and all their guests wave white linen cloths as they wend their way past tourists, artists, booths and stalls throughout the Square. Café du Monde, the open always café best known for its strong coffee and very special beignets, is only a short distance from the Square, but with lines of tourists waiting hours to sit and enjoy those fried donuts, it’s simply not worth the walk.

Back in Jackson Square, two of the state’s museums, each dedicated to a different phase of the Pelican State’s history and lore, flank the still active Catholic cathedral where tourists wander up and down the aisles eyeing the statues and architecture, but are respectful and quiet during mass or other religious services. Excellent restaurants abound.

ghosts at murielsFinding an outstanding restaurant in the Square with spectacular French and Creole cuisine was not a surprise. Finding one named Muriel’s was. And finding Muriel’s had a fascinating ghost in residence, complete with his story, as well as an upstairs outdoor balcony for sipping cocktails overlooking the excitement below made it irresistible.

According to local lore, a wealthy man named Pierre Antoine Lepardi bought the property in the 1800s and refurbished the 18th century house to its original grandeur, loving not only the work it involved but the house itself. Pierre also had a thirst for gambling and lost the house in a poker game in 1814. So distraught was he over the loss, the story goes, he committed suicide on the second floor in what is now Muriel’s Séance Room. The room is elegant, rich in colorful fabrics, period furnishings and magnificent large framed paintings. But as much as I sat on the settee quietly in the eerily lit room and listened, inviting company and willing to take my chances on whether he would be friendly, I never heard a peep or got a glimpse of Monsieur Lepardi.

The view from the balcony was sheer fun; the later dinner in the downstairs dining room, however, was spectacular. There’s a lot to be said for sampling Bayoubaisse, a combination of shrimp, mussels, crab meat, seafood meatballs and andouille sausage served in a sweet vermouth tomato broth, or shrimp and grits, seasoned with leeks and smoked tomato butter sauce and garlic. Finish it with a Gorgonzola cheesecake with honeyed pecans and slices of tart green apple and you find Muriel’s is as gourmet as it is mysterious.

Even better. When the hostess, who runs a very tight, well-organized but very friendly staff, learns a real life Muriel is a dining guest, she presents her with a special labeled bottle of Muriel’s hot sauce. A great souvenir of a magnificent trip south